How to sustain a Self-Organizing business culture

Are you sick of hierarchies, bureaucracies and inflexible leadership?
Are you searching for a responsive, efficient and flexible way to get things done?
Could Self-Organization be what you are looking for?

In previous blogs I shared my ideas about the power of Self-Organization skills. I gave examples of my experience helping companies to create their own vision for their future as Self-Organized enterprises, how they implemented their visions and the results. This blog explores the heart, soul and culture of Self-Organizing groups to demonstrate how they function.

Traditionally, the organizational structures of companies were dictated by their corporate strategies. Matrix teams with representatives from interdependent departments and hierarchies were overseen by a CEO who could impose their will, from the top, down and across their organizations. In other words, structure followed strategy. Increasingly, companies are realizing the inefficiencies of this system. The challenges of long-term strategic planning require a more flexible and adaptable way of working, where individuals and the teams in which they work can respond rapidly to change, unencumbered by ridged structures. But flexible, open, Self-Organizing working environments only succeed if they operate on a foundation of trust.

So the question is: how to develop a culture based on trust?
Some companies have attempted to impose openness and trust through the use of HR tools like evaluation rounds and 360° feedback. But in practice such tools have been shown to erode rather than nurture trust.
The most effective way to build trust in a group is to start with you. Stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eyes and ask: “do I trust myself and am I trustworthy?” Organize open conversations with colleagues on a regular basis. Abandon hierarchy, stimulate informal talks and, importantly, be honest in your discussions. If people are not accustomed to this, then train them to hold authentic conversations: create a culture of trust. What you will learn is that structure will follow culture and behavior will follow structure (read more in my blog ‘Behavior follows structure’).

Two examples to illustrate my point:
1. A government organization developed a shared vision for becoming Self-Organized. They decided to begin their new way of working by changing their structure. They eliminated the role of manager and began working as self-steering teams. Everyone was free to choose which team they wanted to join, so many simply stayed where they were. Their priorities were stability and safety. The company had overlooked a critical step: they had failed to develop a company culture that would support Self-Organization. There was no open feedback, there was not enough transparency and there were too many lingering behaviors that did not suit Self-Organization. One and one-half years later they are now working on developing trust across the organization and are finally realizing the benefits of Self-Organization.

2. A young SME implemented Self-Organization some time ago. Everyone is equal. They even receive the same salary, including the boss – who incidentally no longer acts like one. They have rotating roles and organize peer feedback sessions regularly. If they have a dispute they take a walk together and discuss how to solve it. This way of working allows unequaled freedom. Team members can work effectively regardless of where they are: at the company, from their home office, or while travelling for work or holiday provided close and honest dialogue is maintained. This example illustrates that the company’s structure is of little importance. The key to their successful collaboration is their company culture. Their values and vision guide them and stimulate certain behavior. Complete transparency and open dialogue is vital and far more important than structure and job titles.

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